The highly intelligent creatures are completely changing their daily patterns in areas of high poaching to become nocturnal.
Elephants normally rest at night and are more active during the day.
But in poaching hotspots – or “landscapes of fear” – they are moving and eating at night and hiding in the bush during the day.
This suggests that elephants not only fear for their lives but are intelligent enough to know when they are in danger.
The study over varying periods of 28 female elephants and 32 males given GPS locators in northern Kenya covered the years 2002 to 2009 when poaching levels were moderate.
It also covered 2010 to 2012 when the area was in the grip of a poaching crisis.
Conservationists say that currently 35,000 African elephants are being poached a year for their ivory or one every 15 minutes.
There are thought to be only 400,000 elephants left in the wild across Africa with another 50,000 in Asia.
The study by Festus Ihwagi of Save The Elephant found that the charismatic animals are changing their behaviour.
When the poaching was at its worst, the elephants significantly increased their night-time activity.
Females, which travel in groups with their calves, were particularly likely to become nocturnal when hunting was a heightened risk.
Mr Ihwagi, who is studying for a PhD at Holland’s Twente University, said: “Simultaneous elephant tracking and monitoring of causes of death presented a perfect natural laboratory for studying the behavioural response of elephants to increasing poaching levels.
“The escalation of poaching has become the greatest immediate threat to the survival of elephants.
“As most poaching occurs during the daytime, their transition to nocturnal behaviour appears to be a direct result of the prevailing poaching levels.”
He added: “This change in elephant behaviour has potential long term implications for the survival of elephants which normally rest at night and are more active during the day.
“Elephants in dangerous areas move more at night than those in safer areas, suggesting that poaching pressure, as opposed to other factors such as seasonal changes, are causing elephants to change their behaviour.”
Another example of elephants’ ability to adapt was provided last year by Morgan, a GPS tagged bull elephant on Kenya’s coast.
When he approached the border of war-torn Somalia he increased his nocturnal activity, moving only by night and hiding in the undergrowth by day.
The research, which was carried out with the Kenya Wildlife Service, was published in the journal of Ecological Indicators.
Save The Elephants’ founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton said: “This study shows the adaptability of earth’s largest land mammal to adapt their behaviour flexibly in order to stay safe.”